N 1978, during the period that you might call Aftergate, Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act. Among many other provisions the act required much greater financial disclosure on the part of government officials than ever before, and it proscribed certain kinds of activity on leaving the government (the executive branch only). No senior official could lobby his old agency for a year, nor could any employee lobby on a particular issue on which, while in government, he had been "personally and substantially" involved. It is time to inspect the way these restrictions have been working and to think again about the best method of trying to instill and preserve ethical standards in public life.

The idea when the legislation was enacted, of course, was to clean things up, to provide some assurance that the public trust would not again be betrayed as it so recently had been. You can look around, at what has become the local industry of sleeve-tugging, horn-blowing, false-front PR and influence-peddling, all for large amounts of cash, and see how well the legislation has worked. It hasn't. On the contrary, the years in which the passel of post- Watergate laws has been in effect became instead a kind of golden age of the hustler, a period in which the very kind of transaction the new rules and laws set out to curb has positively flourished.

Now, for precisely this reason -- that proscription hasn't worked -- Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond wants to try some more. His won't work, either. He has introduced and held a first hearing on a bill that would forbid any official (this time including members of Congress) from lobbying at all in the first year out of government and from lobbying for any "foreign entity" for two years. Senior officials could never lobby for such entities after they left government.

The proposal has been fairly well received on the committee. Partly the impetus is the Deaver case, partly other recent disclosures of foreign governments or political figures (the Angolan government and Jonas Savimbi) having at great cost hired PR firms here that then "sell" them to the American public and Congress. Mr. Thurmond apparently was also moved to act by the spectacle of U.S. law and PR firms representing foreign clients in trade matters. He comes from a textile state, textiles have been much affected by imports, and world textile talks are now going on. U.S. firms are trying to tilt the outcome toward foreign clients, and this offends him.

His bill, the senator said, "provides a uniform, straightforward and enforceable way to prevent those who are employed by the federal government from leaving public service and marketing their access and influence for private gain. It will also terminate violations of public trust by halting very high-ranking federal officials, who by the nature of their jobs are privy to some of our government's most sensitive information about national security and trade, from vending that information to a foreign entity."

There is a confusion of issues here. No one thinks an official who becomes privy to sensitive information in government -- national security secrets, the contents of someone's tax return -- should be free to babble about it on leaving. He shouldn't tell it to foreigners. He shouldn't tell it to U.S. citizens. Where it's serious, there are already laws against this sort of thing, just as there are, quite properly, laws proscribing what officials can do while still in government.

No one disagrees, either, that some of the fee- taking by former officials is reprehensible, all the more so because of the force and accuracy with which it suggests that the government can, to some extent, be bought.

But to bar former officials from representing foreign entities is ludicrous. It impinges on freedom of speech and association and even while doing so invites (as we believe almost all such proscriptions do) an entire new subculture given to evasion, another layer of lawyers. One need only look to campaign finance reform for guidance. A certain kind of committee is barred from doing a certain thing. A candidate simply creates a different kind of committee to do it. Nor do these rules -- the Thurmond bill is entitled the "Integrity in Post-Employment Act of 1986" -- work. The foreign entities will still be heard; someone else will carry their water.

For appearances' sake, the sitting members of Congress want to prevent the wielding of influence. But how do you proscribe the use of influence, how can you possibly legislate integrity in post-employment? These bills are placebos for the legislators. Should there be a legislated cooling-off period after an official leaves government before he can return to the fray? We're not sure. But beyond that, let there be full disclosure and leave it at that. The members will have less to brag about when they go home. But the problem -- the basic question of whether this government is for sale -- will be more honestly dealt with.